Thursday, November 08, 2012

Battlefield Restoration Revisited

Many thanks to Dr. Brooks Simpson on his Crossroads Blog [Battlefield Restoration Questioned] for raising the issue of the Battlefield restoration project here at Gettysburg.  Dr. Simpson pointed to this article on the New Republic Blog by John Summers, author of Every Fury on Earth, a collection of political-historical essays. 

I think Mr. Summers misses the main point of Gettysburg National Military Park and the attached Eisenhower Presidential Site.  It is a Military Park.  It is not a nature park, a national forest, an arboretum, or a recreational park.  It is a Military Park.

Essentially, its first service as such is to the American military that it may study the events that occurred here before, during and after the battle, and make that a part of their military knowledge.

After Waterloo, it is perhaps the most studied and most written about battle in Western Culture.  Its effect on American culture is almost immeasurable. 

Indeed, as Mr. Summers asked, "If a battlefield is not a locus of authentic experience, then what is it?  A shrine?  A classroom?"

Actually, you can have it both ways.  And that is what the effort strives to do. 

Former Superintendent Latschar affected an amazing metamorphosis with his bold and well researched plan to transform the Battlefield to its 1863 condition with the addition of the monuments and markers, and the roads and private holdings that he could not have any control over. 

You see the beneficiaries of this work almost every day of the year when the chartered buses and white unmarked US Government licensed vans full of visitors with military haircuts are seen stopping at various locations around the Battlefield.

Those visitors leave the Battlefield with a clearer understanding of what occurred here and why, and the most accurate version of the terrain this piece of ground has seen since the 4th of July, 1863. 

This is what a 'Military Park' means.  The historical context supplants the natural context when that natural context has changed since the events that made the site famous occurred.  Indeed, as anyone who has visited Gettysburg can tell you, the natural context that was extant at the time of the Battle is extremely important, from the shape of the terrain to the presence of the many orchards in which the men sheltered, to the many fences that impeded their progress across the fields, to the wood lots from which they launched those attacks. 

What happened at Gettysburg is still relevant to today's military.  It is as relevant as what Alexander the Great did at Issus, and Gaugamela, and Hydaspes, as what Caesar did in Gaul, and what Sir Arthur Wellesley and Napoleon Bonaparte did at Waterloo.  And in that relevance it is studied today nearly as much as Waterloo. 

And there is still an abundance of trees on the Battlefield.

Many years ago on a bright summer Sunday morning, I had the honor and privilege to have the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens almost entirely to myself.  At one point I bent down and picked up a pebble.  I was immediately confronted by two guards armed with sub-machine guns slung around their necks.  Fortunately they spoke English.  They made the point that it was illegal to even take a pebble from the Parthenon.  I asked how a pebble can be so important.  Their reply was that I was one person, but they had millions of visitors every year...and if each one took a pebble, and they gestured around them...see, they asked, this is where much of the Parthenon has gone. 

On spring days at Gettysburg we see dozens of school buses, and when they stop in the Devil's Den area, the younger girls pile off those buses and start harvesting the forsythia, and the pussy willow.  Within the first few days it is all gone. 

On Little Round Top the Park Service is faced with troubling amounts of erosion caused by foot traffic.  They have tried different ways to minimize the problem all without success.  They periodically contemplate barring visitors from the crest.  Fortunately that is dismissed as a solution...for now. 

At the South End Picnic area, evenings can be entertaining when one sees the raccoons scuttling off into the woods after raiding the trash cans.  They can be tracked by the white KFC bags seen moving through the brush.  As a result, the raccoons no longer eat the crayfish in Plum Run and there is now an overabundance of them.  Additionally at least one small mountain lion has been seen in the South End picnic area, apparently feeding on the raccoons. 

These anecdotal incidents are a serious threat to Gettysburg Battlefield.  The good land management and Battlefield Restoration practiced by the National Park Service is not a threat but an asset, making this historical gem even more priceless.


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